In High on Fire and Corrosion of Conformity, a lesson on why band leaders do—and don't—matter | Music Essay | Indy Week
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In High on Fire and Corrosion of Conformity, a lesson on why band leaders do—and don't—matter 

Fixating on a front person is easy.

click to enlarge ILLUSTRATION BY CHRISTOPHER WILLIAMS
  • Illustration by Christopher Williams

The singer stands at the center of the stage, in the brightest spotlight, with a microphone. Even if holding a guitar, the front person's primary role is to function as a band's mouthpiece, to address the audience between songs, to speak directly to the crowd in a way no guitar solo or drum fill can ever manage. The front person is the face of the entire operation, the obvious object upon which an audience most often foists adulation or criticism.

In metal, even more than in rock 'n' roll, the singer's role almost always eclipses those of the supporting instrumentalists. Every good weapon needs a point of attack; in the aggressive arena of metal, the singer is the sharp tip of that spear. Tony Iommi never left Black Sabbath, but most casual fans could only name Ozzy or Dio, the band's primary singers. And what is Priest without Rob Halford, Motörhead without Lemmy?

This week, two headliners will invite fans of riff-forward heavy metal once again to fixate on lead singers—or maybe not. Now fronted by newly rejoined singer and guitarist Pepper Keenan, Corrosion of Conformity tops a Thursday night bill at the Lincoln Theatre, while Matt Pike's High on Fire plays Motorco two days later. Taken together, these singers suggest that the leader isn't always down in front—especially if he's only the facade of a much larger institution.

For Corrosion of Conformity, Thursday's show caps off a year of touring with Pepper Keenan. He is a lightning rod in his veteran band's complicated history. After five years on hiatus, Corrosion of Conformity reunited, without Keenan, in 2010. The schisms within the band's fan base became very obvious.

The back-in-action COC featured the founding trio of bassist Mike Dean, guitarist Woodroe Weatherman and drummer Reed Mullin. The lineup was an exciting prospect for fans of the band's earlier work, as this was the trio that recorded 1985's thrash landmark, Animosity. For many, though, COC without Pepper Keenan wasn't really COC at all.

Keenan left COC in 2006 to focus on his work in Down, the New Orleans supergroup with Pantera's Phil Anselmo. Still, Keenan had been instrumental in shifting COC's sound away from hardcore punk salad days to the fusion of stoner metal and heavy Southern rock that would give them popular crossover appeal. If you were only familiar with the mainstream version of COC, the reunion of the last five years felt fake.

When Keenan announced he'd rejoin COC last year for a flurry of tours and a new album, the move was hardly a surprise. Five years after the trio's reemergence, it seemed like a logical concession to popular demand for COC to revisit their hard-rock heyday.

Still, Keenan isn't the face of Corrosion of Conformity, something their survival without him makes clear. In fact, he was the sixth, debatably seventh, man to step behind the band's microphone. Corrosion of Conformity has continually reinvented itself, transforming from a ferocious hardcore band into punk-metal crossover pioneers into mainstream metal heroes, to arrive, at last, as a living mix of all of it.

And Keenan is just one piece of that larger legacy. Even now, Keenan doesn't overshadow Dean's inventive bass lines, Mullin's powerful drumming or Weatherman's iconoclastic blend of hardcore fury and blues-metal finesse. If Corrosion of Conformity has an icon, it's their logo—the spiked-and-fanged skull with a radiation warning, which has been the band's emblem since the early '80s.

But the embodiment of High on Fire is unquestionably its singer, Matt Pike, with no mascot needed. He founded High on Fire in 1998, after the split of his genre-defining stoner metal trio Sleep. His former bandmates, bassist Al Cisneros and Chris Hakius, took Sleep's repetitious, meditative qualities into the more esoteric outfit Om. Pike, however, doubled down on hesher fundamentals to craft High on Fire's weed-and-potatoes metal.

While not as ambitious as Sleep, whose hour-long Dopesmoker is a totem of patient repetition, High on Fire has been an exercise in consistent execution. At this point, Pike's individual legacy might just outshine that of either band.

After some turnover early on, High on Fire settled into its current lineup of Pike, drummer Des Kensel and bassist Jeff Matz in 2005. Kensel and Matz have proven to be one of the genre's tightest, most consistent rhythm sections. Kensel, who co-founded High on Fire and co-writes much of the material, drums relentlessly. His agile backing pushes tempos and emphasizes the low-end rumble; he's High on Fire's heaviest component. Bassist Matz plays in lockstep with Kensel, accenting Pike's riffs with understated melody and overstated heft.

Still, Matz and Kensel remain criminally overlooked—or, at least, eclipsed by the tattooed, long-haired, barrel-chested and usually shirtless Pike. He looks like a hybrid of Viking and barfly, heavy metal personified. His guitar playing is concise and forceful, his solos spinning out effortlessly from the dense bedrock of High on Fire's riffs. His guttural rasp carries a melody with authority and experience. Like Motörhead's Lemmy Kilmister, Pike is supported by bandmates who don't seem to mind letting their own contributions reflect back toward the front man.

And as with Motörhead, High on Fire has rarely modified its template. Across seven studio albums, the band has traded in thick riffs, played at a roiling mid-tempo, with simple structures and quick breaks. Never yielding to "extreme metal" gamesmanship or conservative puritanism, High on Fire has established a formula as singular and broadly familiar as that of AC/DC, Iron Maiden and Sleep. Pike drew up a plan from the start, and High on Fire continues to execute it, confirming his vision every time they set foot on a stage or in a studio.

In Corrosion of Conformity and High on Fire, Keenan and Pike are flanked by powerful players worthy of praise. But Keenan's band etched a legacy before he joined and another after his exit. Pike's band, however, works primarily to highlight his presence, the way a great character actor gives a lead more vibrant scenes in which to work.

Despite the differences in perception, these dual reminders assert that leaders are only as great as the bands they lead. That is, what's Sabbath without Tony Iommi? Judas Priest without K.K. Downing and Glenn Tipton? Or Motörhead without the late Phil "Philthy Animal" Taylor?

Just a dude with a microphone and, just maybe, some riffs, too.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Down in front."

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